In Arsenal’s home opener and second match of the season, Arsenal were put to the test. It’s not that unlike many of Arsenal’s first home matches in new seasons that historically have seen Arsenal struggle immensely to get results. As I mentioned in the match preview, Arsenal have only won 4 of their last 10 home openers, including a loss to West Ham in the 2015-16 season. If you’re looking for a positive to the day, maybe it is the fact that despite the adversity and overwhelming poor play, Arsenal did manage to keep West Ham from scoring a second, while taking advantage of their limited chances to score.
Three points are a huge deal and are certainly points the will be happy they grabbed at the end of the season when finite differences often separate the teams that qualify for European play from those that will struggle financially to make ends meet. However, when seasons are beginning, the performance itself gets extra attention and emphasis, deservedly so.
Why? Just ask Arsenal of two years ago, or even last year. Arsenal started last season with 6 points, but their method of getting those results and the performances themselves indicated it wasn’t sustainable – and it wasn’t. The results stopped coming, the play kept dipping, there was no foundation to fall back on and the club churned through Emery and an interim Freddie before finding Mikel.
Now look, before you jump at me, exit the article, or abuse me for suggesting there are correlations between Unai Emery and the team Arteta has set up, I’m not. Arteta has clearly established a better foundation, has created a team identity that the players are buying into, he is praised by just about every player that walks into London Colney, and has demonstrated an ability to make effective tweaks and alterations to fine-tune the system, rather than what feels like making changes for the sake of making changes. But there are clear issues, including new ones on display today, that need addressing if Arsenal are to progress forward.
I have quite a few to get through and comment on, so I am going to skip the recap of the game. If you haven’t seen it or read about it, feel free to read a Twitter thread of mine recapping the action. I am going to jump right into a few takeaways.
Meaningful possession and midfield play
Everyone is well aware of the issues Arsenal has within their midfield when it comes to creativity, but against West Ham we saw an Arsenal midfield that struggled all around for much of the contest. Xhaka and Ceballos formed the central pivot and it’s a partnership that Arteta will be keen on making work. After all, it could be argued that the emersion of those two as a midfield partnership played the largest role in Arsenal’s success at the end of the season.
However, they had major problems that stats may cover up. The pair combined for a over 200 passes and almost 90% accuracy, but much of it had that distinct side-to-side feel that comes when Arsenal struggle in the attack. Last year’s success came when Ceballos settled on the ball and made smart decision on when to go vertical with passes and get daring. Part of the problem, seems as thought it could be contributed to their positioning.
Throughout the match, Ceballos and Xhaka offered their services on the same plane of the field as seen in the picture above. At times this makes sense. The pair form the side-by-side pivot and it’s important to keep shape, especially defensively. But yesterday we saw them very close to one another, not offering options for the other on different levels, and it allowed West Ham the ability to keep them in front of their low block. Interestingly, this is in contrast to what we saw during the Fulham match when Elneny and Xhaka consistently were looking to seesaw forward and backward with each other’s movement to make themselves difficult to defend.
Part of this may come down to West Ham’s willingness to sit in their low block and keep the entire game in front of him. I get it and it makes sense, but it resulted in a lot of side-to-side passing that couldn’t even be mistaken for honest probing of a backline.
Couple that with the fact that Arsenal gave away the ball cheaply throughout the side, routinely put themselves in bad positions and dangerous spots, they were sloppy in their positioning and movement, and they couldn’t take up positions between the lines frequently enough to be dangerous and break up West Ham’s defense, and it’s fair to say Arteta has things to work on.
The 3-4-3 may not be Arsenal’s long term solution, and there may be efforts to change things, but that will take completing deals, integrating them into the side, and making the alterations needed tactically to be dangerous. It’s far from an overnight switch and Arsenal will begin to have a steady flow of games coming now that are far from easy.
Kieran Tierney praise
This headline may sound a bit odd to anyone that watched the game and knows that Kieran Tierney didn’t play against West Ham after suffering an injury during the warmups. Yet, this headline might also make a lot of sense to anyone that watched the match and the diabolical play of Kolasinac.
After Tierney went off hurt and Kolasinac filled the role, it is clear to see just how vital Kieran Tierney is to Arteta’s tactics. We knew Tierney was a solid, hardworking, incredibly talented left back, left wingback, and left center back, but it took Kolasinac playing so poorly within the role to really show the extent of Tierney’s value.
Having a player that can so gracefully get down the line, overlap Saka, overlap Aubameyang, and be a part of the attack, while also having the knowledge and ability to get back into defense to keep the back secure, currently feels like the most important role in the squad. For two games now, people like myself have been raving about the stroke of genius that was Arteta’s decision to have Tierney shift from the left center back role to the left wingback role when Arsenal are attacking, allowing Ainsley Maitland-Niles the freedom to tuck in centrally and get up into the attack.
It’s tough for defenders to track, it stretches them wide, it puts two Arsenal players in very comfortable attacking positions, and at times it adds an additional attacker to the mix creating a 2-2-6. Yesterday, it was clear that Kolasinac was incapable of overlapping Saka in the midfield and getting down the line to overlap Aubameyang and it made life incredibly easy on West Ham.
We are supposed to get a look like the image above allowing Kolasinac the freedom to get forward into the space left of Aubameyang. But because he couldn’t manage that, as well as, his defensive responsibilities, he got caught in no man’s land which kept West Ham’s low block from be stretched, it kept Aubameyang, Saka, and Kolasinac in front of them, and it prevented the left side from being nearly as dangerous as we have become used to.
Additionally, this absence of an attacker on the left side through an overlap meant that Arsenal weren’t transitioning into their attacking 2-3-5 formation that sometimes adds and extra to make it a 2-2-6. Instead they were left with a Frankenstein, 2-4-4 attacking shape with a weird lopsided look to it like the image above.
It was far from effective, far from fluid, and fans should be saying ther internal prayers that Tierney’s injury is nothing serious. If it is serious and he misses a game, a performance like this from Kolasinac should force Arteta’s hand into considering other options.
Missing zone 14 presence
For those that don’t know, the football pitch is split into 18 zones which are used to call out areas of the pitch. One of the most talked about areas is zone 14 because it lies directly outside the top of the oppositions box, centrally located, and is the area usually occupied by a number 10 or a team’s more creative, attacking player. We all know that Arsenal have the major task of addressing this exact issue, but last night they didn’t. After promising signs against Fulham, it appeared as though Arsenal took two steps back.
There is a reason we covered the aspects addressed in this article in this order. Because Ceballos and Xhaka spent most the game on the same plane and didn’t offer many options on different levels. And because Kolasianc was incapable of overlapping, meaning Aubameyang was congested when he tucked in and Saka had to stay wide and offer that far sided presence. And because this prevented Arsenal from getting the numbers they wanted into the attack, there was no one occupying that number 14 space. The formational shape looked a lot like the image below.
Within Arteta’s system in recent matches the void that is usually occupied by a number 10 has been occupied by a multitude of players. The primary two players have been Willian drifting in from the right to play centrally, or the left-wingback coming central to get up into the attack while allowing the exchange with Tierney to take place. With the issues in the midfield, Willian playing poorly, and Kolasinac’s struggles, no one occupied that space and it was precisely where Arsenal needed to be dangerous.
If you look at both goals scored by Arsenal, Bukayo Saka is filling that space, is dynamic in the space to get himself the ball there, or attack it off the dribble, and from there he helps create both goals. He plays in Aubameyang for the first and he plays a lovely ball to Ceballos through four West Ham defenders in a movement that looks little like the image below. Saka comes central, Ceballos carries in run through the central midfield area, and Nketiah is switched on to get the tap-in game winner.
However, none of that is capable of happening frequently unless Arsenal sort out the issues listed above to allow the wider wingbacks or wingers to be dangerous. Arteta will not want to change Aubameyang’s role, preferring him to be in the positions that have allowed him to score 1 goal in the first game and get an assist in the second, which means it will fall on the shoulders of wingback to assist in creating chances and finding ways to be creative about getting into that space.
Arteta has shown the world he doesn’t have a desire to slot Ozil back into that hole at this point, and may not be looking to ever return to that style of play, but with it being one of the most dangerous areas on the pitch, Arsenal will need to get more from it if they want to inject creativity and production into the side.
There are a couple individual performances I wanted to talk about for this game, and I intend to do it this week during the days in between now and Leicester, but felt the sloppy midfield play and the missing Arteta-esque identity needed to be addressed and talked about. Truly what Arteta has created demands a team that works in unison to transition fluidly from shape to shape in a clear pattern of play, but when it goes bad – it really, really goes bad.
But they did enough to win. They took their two chances and scored, while keeping West Ham out of the net. Leno had to make a few saves but not nearly as many as you would expect given West Ham’s 14 shots. Plenty to learn from, plenty to work on, but a win is a win some days and getting 6 points out of 6 to start the season is the first achievement of many small benchmarks that Arteta will try to meet in order to lead Arsenal back into 4th place.
Next up – Leicester City in the 3rd round of the Carabao Cup on 23/9. Enjoy the week and the win!